(Adds Israeli officials, details)
By Adam Entous
JERUSALEM, June 12 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said for the first time on Tuesday that an international force along the Gaza-Egypt border should be seriously considered to help counter Hamas’s growing strength.
A senior Israeli official said government experts were exploring what such an international force might look like and what its mandate would entail.
But the official said it was unclear whether any major powers would be prepared to send their troops into the so-called Philadelphi Corridor along Gaza’s border with Egypt. Israel has demanded that any force be ready to act against militants.
Israel has long resisted Palestinian calls for international peacekeepers in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, saying their deployment would interfere with Israeli security measures.
But Israel has signalled flexibility since last year’s Lebanon war, which ended with a boosted UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) peacekeeper force in former Hezbollah guerrilla strongholds.
Olmert made the comments in a meeting with the visiting Dutch foreign minister.
According to a statement issued by the prime minister’s office, Olmert said "serious consideration" should be given to deploying an international force in the Philadelphi Corridor akin to UNIFIL.
"If the Gaza Strip ultimately falls into the hands of Hamas, it will have regional significance," Olmert was quoted as saying.
Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, but cross-border violence has continued and Israel recently launched an air campaign to try to stop militants from firing rockets at southern Israeli towns.
Last month Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni proposed exploring the idea of an international deployment in the Philadelphi Corridor in a bid to stop smuggling by militants.
A senior Israeli official said the government would only be prepared to accept a force with a strong mandate and sufficient firepower. The official said Olmert’s comments could lay the groundwork for Israel to retake the corridor itself, should Western powers balk at Israel’s demands.
"If they will do nothing, it will make it legitimate for us to act," the official said. "We’d have a clear mandate."
Italy’s foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, has said that his government would consider sending peacekeepers to Gaza if the Palestinian government requested help to end factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah.
Italy is a leading contributor to UNIFIL, and D’Alema said last year that if the Lebanon force proved effective, a similar force could be used in Gaza. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams)